Marijuana legalization is back on track for July, after Governor Ralph Northam announced amendments to legalization legislation. In February, legislators surprised marijuana policy watchers by delaying the effective date of legalization until 2024, leading the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia to blast the bills as worse than nothing. Since then, legalization advocates have lobbied Northam to amend the legislation to go into effect in July, when most other recently-passed bills take effect.
“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Northam said in a Wednesday press release. “Virginia will become the 16th state to legalize marijuana—and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health, and social justice. I am grateful to the advocates and legislators for their dedicated work on this important issue, and I look forward to this legislation passing next month.”
On April 7, the General Assembly will meet for a one-day veto session to consider amendments Northam has made to their bills. The amendments have to pass both the House and the Senate to become law. If they don’t pass, Northam has the option to either sign or veto the original bills.
Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said that in the 2021 session, the Senate approved a July 1 effective date for legalization, but the House of Delegates added the longer timeline, which the Senate later agreed to. But he expects Northam’s amendments to pass.
“I think since then, the House members have had time to talk among themselves and with the Governor’s administration and hear from the public,” Ebbin told The Virginia Star.
Northam’s amendments allow adults to possess up to one ounce of cannabis without intent to distribute starting July 1, when households will also be allowed to grow up to four plants. The amendments would also allow new regulating agency the Cannabis Control Authority to revoke a company’s business license if they interfere with unionizing efforts, don’t pay the Department of Labor prevailing wage, or if more than 10 percent of the business’ employees are classified as independent contractors. The governor’s amendments also allow expungement and sealing of marijuana criminal records to begin as soon as agencies are able.
“Governor Northam’s amendments will stop the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws beginning this summer, while also focusing on public safety and educating our youth,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring said in Northam’s press release.
Herring sponsored the House marijuana legalization bill.
“This is a very important step for equity, and I’m grateful for the Governor’s leadership,” she said.
Northam also announced two budget amendments. One of the amendments will fund a public awareness campaign of the health and safety risks of marijuana. The other will fund training to help law enforcement recognize and prevent drugged driving.
Currently, law enforcement performs standardized field sobriety tests to determine if someone is driving under the influence of drugs. If they fail the tests, then the driver is arrested and a fluid sample is taken. That sample is then tested to determine what substance the driver was using.
“There is no scientifically valid impairment testing based on bodily fluids for cannabis impairment,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director of marijuana advocacy organization NORML told The Virginia Star. “The way it works in Virginia right now is if a law enforcement officer believes someone is impaired, they conduct a roadside sobriety test. If an individual fails that test, then they would move on to fluid testing.”
But Pedini said fluid samples only prove consumption, not impairment. In court, an arresting officer would testify to their observation of the circumstances, and a forensic expert would testify about the analysis. Pedini said there is new software-based impairment testing that is not yet in use in Virginia.
International Association of Chiefs of Police Drug Evaluation and Classification Program Project Manager Kyle Clark told The Star, “Development continues in the race to create a breath-testing instrument to detect the presence of marijuana, but we are not aware of any device that has been implemented into a police enforcement setting.”
Clark said some states are studying the effectiveness of roadside oral fluid tests.
“The Walk and Turn, One Leg Stand, and Finger to Nose tests have proven effective with recent studies in identifying impairment related to marijuana,” Clark said in an email. “The field sobriety tests, however, are only one component of the overall investigation. It starts with the reason for the stop – usually unsafe driving in some form – and then the driver demonstrates indicators of impairment during the roadside interview during the traffic stop leading the officer to suspect he/she may be impaired.”
Senator Richard Stuart (R-King George) argued against passing the bill on the Senate floor in February, saying it was misleading.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that it will be illegal to grow marijuana in Virginia, it will be illegal for people to manufacture it, it will be illegal for people to possess it with the intent to sell it, it’ll be illegal to possess certain amounts. And it goes beyond that. Most of those will be a felony in Virginia, and many of those will be prosecuted.”
But Stuart supports the Governor’s amendments. In Northam’s press release, Stuart said, “These amendments provide needed support and training to law enforcement and address concerns I originally had about the legislation.”
“It’s important that as we take our time to thoughtfully stand up this industry, we also provide clarity and don’t confuse Virginians by punishing them for something that will now be legal,” Senator Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) said. “These amendments do just that.”
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